August 9th, 2008
“It’s all my fault,” my Grandad told me, searching through his pockets for his pipe tobacco, “I should never have introduced you to Aubrey Beardsley.” There was a moment of silence before things slid into place, smooth as a Tetris block. My mind cast itself back over the last 15 years. 15 years spent hopping from books to records, comics to films. 15 years spent on my hands and knees shining torches into obscured corners and inhaling musty spores. The Unica Zurn I finished the day before, the Antonin Artaud the day before that. My first ecstatic discovery of Sun Ra’s Arkestra. My first viewings of Akira and El Topo. A host of patterns began to emerge, way-station lights twinkling the location of minor obsessions and remembered moments: Me and my brother were the only people dancing at the Boredoms gig…That gas mask was only a fiver…Fuck me The Invisibles is amazing, I haven’t thought about this stuff in yea…I hope Naked Lunch is as good as I’ve already told everyone it is…I’d kiss you but I’m on acid and I’m just not sure that my lips could stand it (kissherkissherkissherkissher).
Names combined and re-combined in the murk. Weaving together and separating like bacteria dancing – the mind altering fungus of the Tabula Rasa: Maruo and Hino, Blake to Brian Jones, Savoy, Sinclair, Huysmans, Cale. Answers to an Escher designed crossword filled in in Guinness by an ape with no more idea why he’s doing it than frogspawn does of its cosmic destiny. I was staring in to the Jet-black-streaked-with-vivid-crimson contents of my overloaded brain pan and it made. Me. Fucking. Hard.
So it had been Grandad who’d sent me off on the Long Strange Trip, had it? Made sense. I remembered him showing me Beardsley and I remembered the big hardback book on Surrealism he had lying around. The one I used to sit and read for hours on end while the adults chatted and drank coffee in the kitchen. Thing is, though the answer made sense, it did not satisfy. Beardsley, the Surrealists. Those motherfuckers had occurred to me while I was, what, eleven? twelve? Just in time for my first year fine art experiments to be a riot of shrieking faces, insect parts and things emerging from eggs. Something was missing. The Cosmic Trigger had to be pre-adolescent.
I thought of the imported American comics which inexplicably would turn up in the Texaco garage in Tavistock. Grant and Breyfogle (Praise him! Praise him! Bring him back to The Bat!) and their peerless run on ‘Detective’. Lobo swinging Superman around the fortress of solitude by his cape. Those large format DC reprints from London editions. Good stuff, and important but it all seemed a little…brown bread. It wasn’t the stuff that lit the fire that burned the fuse that lit the taper that fired the opening shot in the War of the Savage Mind. Saturday morning cartoons were pre-simpsons and Earthworm Jim and concerned only with pimping toys to the gormless. Music was whatever was on the radio that wasn’t talking: Mum’s Opera and Dad’s Jazz; ‘The Pearl Fishers’ and ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ bleeding into The Beatles, embarrassingly-late-period Who and Dire Straits…
…Okay, back up there.
…Nine years old in the back of a car torturously wending its way through the heat hazed carriageways of the South of France. It’s hot and smells of your sisters vomit and garlic sausage. Fidgetingly you scan a G.I. Joe comic that you’ve already committed to memory (“Storm Shadow is a ninja…Han doesn’t stand a chance”). Dire Straits are on the stereo: the opening Sting-addled digi-psych swirl that kicks into the riff of ‘Money For Nothing.’ The car pulls over into the forecourt of a Hypermarche. It looks filthy and dead and you know that it’ll be full of children screaming in a language that you don’t understand and you want to stay in the car. You clamber out and through the sliding doors. Your shorts stick painfully to the back of your legs. Mum says something about comics and you follow the line of her finger still protesting inwardly. What’s the point I won’t be able to read them ‘cos they’ll be in a different language and its not as good just to look at the pictures and I wish I’d bought more than just the one comic and oh well maybe there’ll be some Batman or Zoids or Spiderman or…
Your first thought is that you’ve wandered somewhere where you’re not meant to be. Your mum was mistaken, these aren’t comics. These are…different. You understand comics. You understand that Spiderman can’t fight the Joker, you’re beginning to see that Judge Dredd is funny as well as cool and you know that Commando is better than Warlord, but you’ve seen nothing to prepare you for this.
For a start they’re the wrong size! All shiny and hard backed where comics should be floppy and tatty, bulging on the racks next to the TV Times. These look chuffed with themselves, radiating Fuck-You-Tude in their tough sleekness. You scan the racks for signs of recognition and score fat zero. Nowhere among this parade of muscle-bound Barbarian princes, international super spies, men flying on giant jellyfish, talking animals in medieval garb and big breasted – Yikes! – Amazonian War Queens do you spot a single recognisable character. You’ve slipped the hand of a man in tights and are swallowed in a crowd out of Bruegel. Who are all these dudes? Painted all realistic and scowling so damn mean? And why do I feel strange when I look at the women?
For this, of course, is the true separation point. Brazen rudeness. Women with no clothes on ride howling war Wyverns. A seductress, baps out, is touched suggestively by – Urgh! – an octopus. Priestesses curl themselves around axe-wielding champions in lamp-lit temples. Even the monsters – Hydras and Harpies, all the hippogryphs of your incomplete mythical education – are wibbling their naughty bits about. You’ve experienced plenty of different emotional resposes to comics: you’ve been excited, bored, moved and grossed out, but you’ve never had a comic make you blush before. Truth be told, you’re scared.
Your hand goes out toward something that looks a bit less terrifying – some kind of spy with numerals for a name – when – Praise Tharg! – you spot an Asterix book and bury your head in it so as to block out the suffocating tide of violence and boobs that aren’t your Mum’s.
Now I’m not for one moment suggesting that my later self-immolation in counter-cultural holy water was entirely precipitated by a pre-adolescent encounter with some nudie-comix in a glorified frog service station. Simply that a lot of the tropes that would come to intrigue and fascinate were already present in that first heat-drunk exposure to Bande Dessinee’s dubious, grubby surrealism. The squamous, threatening sexualities of Burroughs and Bataille. The pop mysticism of Jodorowsky. Cosmic horror from Hodgson and Machen to Lovecraft. Tentacles. Lots of bloody tentacles. These themes, unremembered, continued to surface as my explorations went outwards. In this way I think of Bande Desinee not so much as an influence over my interests and obsessions, but as a series of dimly remembered signposts that pointed the way to Serious Drugs.
I didn’t actually start reading French sci-fi comics until well into my twenties. I was bored with American comics (and still am, pretty much), but still in love with the medium and looking for something to get my teeth into. The problem was that, in contrast with the literature that I loved – the kind of experimental Biker Speed prose that makes your eyeballs bleed – American comics seemed so ploddingly linear. Tied into conventions of cause, effect and plot-service [great coinage. ED] that seemed antithetical to where my wooly-wired head was at. I didn’t want anything that I could ‘understand’ in a conventional sense, rather I wanted something that would hit me like one of Aldiss’s hallucinogenic weapons. A giant, all in one hit of sci-fi strangeitude. A squeeze of lemon in the third eye that would leave me barefoot in the head and stammering. Damn it, I wanted something Sexy! No, not a picture of Rogue pouting in a swimsuit, but something sleek and dangerous: Knives-in-her-hair sexy.
There’s been some fancy talk round these parts recently about comics and music and the combination thereof. About trying to throw the action in the panels into some kind of relief with the addition of achingly hip and contemporary-ish musical recommendations, whether we want ‘em or not. I will state my case here. The practitioners of this art are fucking amateurs. I would laugh them out of the door of any record shop they set foot in. I am Nightmare Bastard of the Record Shop Snobs. I sneer at them for buying Magnetic Fields records two years after they’ve come out and sneer at them for buying Magnetic Fields records on the day of release. They are, quite simply, not as cool as I am. Rapture, eh? Suicide, huh? Sonic-frikkity-fuckity-Youth, is it? Back to Sunday school with you. You want an achingly obscure musical reference to throw my French oddysey [sic?] into the correct light? Well then, let’s go.
You’ll recall that I said I was looking for something to bring back the sexy to my comics appreciation? Well at about that time a friend of mine passed me a cd by mid-seventies French Progtronica-ists Heldon. The album – called ‘Interface’ and featuring a none-more-Euro cover of a reptilian hotty in an oversized space helmet – was chock full of the kind of burbling analogue electronica later pillaged wholesale by Add-N-to-X. It swooped and swooned in a distinctly Francophile manner, summing up all the haughty bombast that can be summoned when Baudrillard-reading Sci-Fi fans decide to Rock The Fuck Off. In French. It was (and remains) le beezneez. However when I listened to it (as I am now) I found some long forgotten imagery rising unbidden from the back-brain. Sands blowing over Eons old Martian Necropili. Pterodactyls circling above the dormant volcanoes of Saturn. The remains of rusted robots buried under thousands of years of ice. It was Epic. It was Pretentious. It was French Comics.
Thus began a frenzy of buying, which neatly coincided with a very relaxing French holiday (relaxing, that is, for myself, probably not for my partner at the time who had to cope with an endless babbling litany of names and enthusiasms: “Moebius blah blah Bilal blah more tolerance for Epic Fantasy blah de blah blah Druillet etc. Apologies to her). I scooped up great armfuls of those lovely hardback editions and devoured them whilst stoned and listening to Magma. If I had thought that fucking a brie would bring me closer to the Franco-Cosmic Motherlode I would have done it without so much as a Gallic shrug. Geek Fire in the South of France.
Now, I speak practically no French. I can just about muster an “ou’est le (la?) Banque” if required and can find the toilets in most restaurants, but my knowledge of the French language ends at about Page 15 of a Tricolor textbook. C’est ne pas probleme. You remember how I said that I find American comics too plodding and linear? Well, when cut loose from the necessitys of dialogue by simple ignorance all thoughts of linearality dissapear out of the window. I use French comic books like I’d use a flannel soaked in poppers: stick your head in and breathe deep.
Open a page of Druillet’s Delirius at random. Soaring cityscapes bustle with alien intelligences; two legged hoppers blast off from scuzzy spaceports; knights on hoverbikes joust in the looming presence of solar temples. Who needs a story in the face of that much screaming metal (French comics reference there kids. First past the post gets a bottle of Calvados!)? Not me, mon cherie. Indeed, perhaps if I were to find out the plot of Druillet’s long running ‘Lone Sloane’ series I’d be a dissapointed. Maybe it would be dull? Maybe it would be poorly written? Maybe it would – gasp! – be a bit close to Star Wars for comfort? I don’t know and, right now, I have no intention of finding out. I’m happy just to sit here and soak up the booby-cosmic wunderlust.
Of course, this is something that Moebius understands. His Arzach stories are the four-colour embodiment of the Franco-Cosmic. Suffused with alien dignity and melancholy, the titular hero flies his pterodactyl past the ruined zigurats of ancient civilizations, over epic battlefields on which the assembled armies stretch into the distance like toys, always pressing on, stopping only to be dissapointed. He is the ultimate cosmic wanderer, unconcerned with the ways of his world, existence justified by the speed of his flight. No plot, no dialogue, just a tangible sense of weariness, that in his hurry to move on he is always leaving something behind. La Tristesse Cosmique.
Well, that’s how I see it anyway.
Of course I’m not just talking about comics here. I’m talking about a peculiarly French approach to imaginative extremes that stretches back to before the surrealists. It’s there in the music of Heldon, Magma and Ange. It’s the comics of Bilal, Moebius and Druillet. It’s something that breathes in the imaginative space between Battle of the Planets and William Burroughs. It’s the reason that when walking through Agen you can round a corner into a town square and be confronted by a statue of a crash-helmeted centaur clutching a giant naval compass (you can imagine how excited I got when I saw THAT on my French holiday). Now obviously I’m in severe danger of romanticising French culture here, but it seems to me that an unblinking understanding that this stuff is to be taken seriously, as opposed to being dropped in the toybox, is what sets them apart. Such self conscious maturity can lead up its own little cul de sacs, of course – the aforementioned reliance on boobs and guns would seem to show that – but this little outcrop of artists, musicians and writers (I’ll call ‘em Generation Metal Hurlant) have been responsible for some of the most exciting, genuinely mindblowing science-fiction that it’s been my pleasure to experience, and with NO SHAME. These are serious motherfuckers doing beautiful things and they present a perfect antidote to so much that is stale and seemingly endless about culture, and particularly comics, at the moment.
Now, who’s got the balls of brass to follow where they’ve lead? Who’s going to write and draw a comic in it’s own semi-coherent language that tackles all the shades of joy and the roads that lead between them into the unfurling stars of a thousand dying universes? I’ll buy it certainly, and, If done differently enough and excitingly enough, I bet other people would too. Let’s see if we can’t scare the shit out of some nine year old kids. Except maybe this time it’ll happen in a Texaco garage rather than a Hypermarche.